Saturday, December 14, 2013

We Really Need to Talk About Palestinian Corruption. By Jonathan Schanzer.

President Mahmoud Abbas faces a permanent crisis of confidence. Photo: Ahmad Khateib/ Flash90.

We Really Need to Talk About Corruption. By Jonathan Schanzer. The Tower, December 2013.


The U.S. has made Israeli-Palestinian peace into a top priority. But how can you build a legitimate, peaceful state out of a kleptocratic regime?

If peace were suddenly to break out in the Middle East, John Kerry would undoubtedly assure his place in the Secretary of State Hall of Fame. Defiantly challenging a chorus of naysayers at home and around the world, Kerry launched a new round of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy on July 29, 2013, and believes he can conclude a deal between the two sides by the end of April 2014.
He has his work cut out for him, however. Extremely difficult, almost impossible issues remain to be resolved, such as the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugee claims, and final borders.
But one obstacle is almost never discussed in public, yet has the potential to make even the most successful negotiation end in a spectacular failure. The present efforts to create a Palestinian state are built entirely atop a Palestinian political system that has long suffered from endemic corruption, abuse of power, nepotism, and waste. This problem has dogged the Palestinians at least since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, radically undermining the most basic elements required for successful governance—including the faith of individual Palestinians in their leaders. This hinders the ability to administer international assistance, encourage investment, or build effective institutions.
Put simply, the current Palestinian regime, led first by Yasser Arafat and now by President Mahmoud Abbas, is ossified, brittle, and distrusted by the Palestinian street. The failure to address this problem would most likely lead to the birth of a failed state that crushes Palestinian freedom and economic growth, threatens Israel, and fosters radicalism—making American diplomatic efforts today seem, in retrospect, tragically flawed despite the huge investment of resources and political credibility.
. . . .
It seems clear that, despite being rejected by both the ballot and the gun, Abbas has failed to learn his lesson. He has failed to reform the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, and does not show any signs of attempting to do so in the near future.  And the West, addicted to top-down peacemaking, shows little interest in genuinely helping the Palestinian people attain a government dedicated to coexistence with Israel, nor one built on the open, fair and transparent civil society and legal system required to build a successful state.
Abbas, it should be noted, is not going anywhere. Four years past the end of his presidential term, with no elections in sight, despite regular tantrums in which he declares his departure is imminent, Abbas appears determined to continue in office until he is no longer physically able to govern. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Abbas has no heir apparent and, according to Palestinian law, his designated successor is a Hamas member who became speaker of the Palestinian parliament following the 2006 elections.
Washington appears distinctly unconcerned by all this. Indeed, Kerry’s new peace initiative is marked by a strong willingness to throw money at the PA without a plan to bolster its ability to govern or end decades of financial mismanagement. In fact, the cash is already on the proverbial table: In May 2013, Kerry announced that the PA will be rewarded for reaching a peace agreement with $4 billion in aid. More recently, the White House’s Middle East Coordinator Phil Gordon stated that “stabilizing the Palestinian Authority’s finances” was an urgent goal for the administration, while also noting that the U.S. has already contributed $348 million to the PA this year.
Sadly, this means that the administration is now unlearning what past administrations took years to understand: Ignoring the issue of Palestinian governance is a mistake. Ambassador Dennis Ross, for example, who spearheaded the Clinton administration’s peace efforts, has said that “We should have been focused on the state-building enterprise. … We didn’t really focus on that until, in effect, after the collapse of Oslo.”
Aaron David Miller, who worked closely on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking for over two decades, has said that Washington often turned a blind eye to the PA’s abuses of power, so long as the Palestinians maintained a public commitment to peacemaking diplomacy. “State security courts and human rights abuses?” he said. “Terrible. But you’ve got to keep the peace process alive. Corruption? Terrible. But you’ve got to keep the peace process alive.” Miller has expressed regret that Washington’s approach was transactional rather than transformational.
Elliott Abrams, who served as an advisor to George W. Bush, has also acknowledged that the problem of PA mismanagement and poor governance was well known to the administration, but “on corruption, we never had a program. We did not have a five-point plan.”
Indeed, for a time, the only plan the U.S.—and the West in general—had was to bet on Salam Fayyad and his efforts to clean up the PA. But now that Fayyad has been pushed out, there appears to be no plan at all.
Theoretically, the United States could steer the Palestinians back to the Fayyad model, since it doesn’t really matter whether the effort is led by Fayyad himself, or by another competent leader with a commitment to reform and institution building. Unfortunately, this seems very unlikely to happen.
Today, American diplomats are falling all over themselves to placate the wrong Palestinian leaders. Washington’s goal is to reach a peace deal, pure and simple, even as the Palestinian government suffers from the same endemic corruption and abuse of power it always has. The failure to address these issues will inevitably give rise to the same wave of frustration that elected Hamas, an outcome that would threaten the very peace deal Washington hopes to foster.  Furthermore, the best possible way to encourage the civil society needed for a stable state, let alone a durable peace, may be better achieved from the bottom up, rather than simply hoping that corrupt leaders will make it happen from the top down against the interests of their profitable patronage networks and their own continued enrichment.
In other words, administration officials continue to ignore the Palestinian struggle for good governance, despite the lessons learned from the election of Hamas and the Arab Spring movements that have recently toppled multiple Arab regimes similar to the PA.
Seemingly desperate for a peace deal and disinclined to challenge the Fatah leadership, Washington now appears only too willing to enter into yet another transactional relationship at the expense of a transformational one, and at the expense of a sustainable two-state solution.